Henry has become an accidental icon of British design and manufacturing.
In March this year, photos of the UK government’s glitzy new briefing room, where Boris Johnson’s new media chief was set to host daily press conferences, leaked to the media.
The centrepiece of a “presidential” approach to communications, it was already controversial for its cost to taxpayers of £2.6m. With its gaudy blue backdrop, giant union flags and imposing podium, it looked like the stage for a US political or legal TV show: The West Wing with a touch of Judge Judy.
What the briefing room needed was something to suck the pomposity out of it. What it needed, it turned out, was a cameo appearance from a 620-watt anthropomorphic vacuum cleaner.
The stocky red and black appliance was barely visible in the wings, stage left, yet instantly recognisable. Turned away from the podium, his chrome wand propped casually against a varnished dado rail, the Henry vacuum cleaner looked almost as if he were rolling his eyes.
The image quickly went viral; there were gags about a “leadership vacuum”. “Can we put Henry in charge?” asked TV presenter Lorraine Kelly. Executives at Numatic International, based in a sprawling complex of giant sheds in Chard, a small town in Somerset, were delighted. “It’s amazing how little of Henry was in that picture, and how many people came through to us and said, ‘Have you seen it? Have you seen it?” says Chris Duncan, founder and sole owner of the firm where a Henry rolls off the production line every 30 seconds.
Duncan, who invented Henry 40 years ago this summer, is now 82, and worth an estimated £150m. Known as “Mr D” to his 1,000 employees at the factory, he still works full-time at a standing desk that he built himself.